Cruisin' To The Edge With
Yes Bassist Billy Sherwood
By Shawn Perry
By now, Billy Sherwood has proven himself a worthy replacement for Chris Squire in Yes. At least as far as in live performance. The possibility of new Yes music with Sherwood is up in the air, but for now the band has been busy traversing the continents, playing full albums from their colorful catalog. As of this writing, Yes is on the road in the States, playing the albums Drama and Tales Of Topographic Oceans. All the travel hasn’t kept Sherwood out of the studio, where he is constantly recording projects for himself and others.
When I spoke to him in 2015, Sherwood had just completed his first year back with Yes (he was the band’s one and only “second” guitarist in the late 90s), and he had several projects in the works. “I run at a much different pace than Yes does,” he told me. “I am a workaholic. I have my own studio, I’m sitting in here right now recording a bass for a record that I am involved with. I am constantly working on stuff.”
Toward the end of 2015, Sherwood released a concept record called Citizen, along with Collection, a compilation of songs from seven solo albums, and a reissue of his 2014 solo release Divided By One, previously only available as a digital download. Since then, Sherwood’s name has been attached to projects with Middlesong and Circa, whose “super proggy” 2016 release Valley Of The Windmill features the Yes bassist on lead vocals and guitar, with original Yes keyboardist Tony Kaye, drummer Scott Connor and bassist Rick Tierney.
Kaye is someone Sherwood constantly works with. In fact, on the opening track, “The Citizen” from Citizen, Sherwood and Kaye were joined by Squire for what turned out to be his very last recording. “That is correct sadly,” Sherwood confirmed. “I had seen Chris. I went up to Arizona to see him and get him to play on the record. I set up my little portable studio in the Holiday Inn I was in and he came over and recorded, we had a great time as we always did hanging out, laughing and talking about all kinds of things.”
As Sherwood would soon learn, Squire’s health issues had escalated. “I called him just to say hey that was fun, thanks, can’t wait to see you again, and that is when he told me the horrible news. The rest is kind of history as they say and a fast one at that. Six weeks later we lost him, so it’s really, really sad. I am very touched and honored and thankful that I have his last statement, especially with the kind of friendship we had over the years. It’s important to me.”
And with that it only seemed natural that Sherwood would be tapped as the bassist for Yes. Since the 90s, he and Squire had worked on numerous projects and became close friends. When the bassist became ill, he stumped for Sherwood, who was originally hired on a temporary basis until Squire recovered. “The idea was that I was going to fill in for him on the road while he got better and then we lost him,” Sherwood explained. “So inadvertently, I ended up taking that slot, which was what Chris wanted and was kind of priming me for as we were dealing with his sickness along the way. He kept reiterating how he wanted Yes to continue no matter what, so he promised me to keep it going.”
Sherwood said he and Squire talked in great detail about how to approach the gig. “One of the things he said was, ‘I don’t want you to imitate me. There is no reason to go out there and try to be me and imitate me, I want you to be yourself and that is why I am asking you to do this because you’re the right guy for this. You can bring your own identity into it while still carrying on what was.’ He knew I was going to respect the music to its utmost, and try to push it forward.”
Sherwood was astonished how supportive Squire was. “I thought, ‘Man, how gracious and what an amazing character in so many ways to not only be that giving, but how many rock stars do you know would want to pass on their legacy to someone else?’ A lot of these guys don’t want anyone tampering with it and would want to shut it down after their statement. But Chris here he wants it to live on and into the future.”
In the wake of losing Chris Squire, Sherwood believes it’s important to keep Yes moving forward. “You are always going to have people who are, 'No original line up, no Yes.' For goodness sake, we have now lost two from the original line up and one of them is retired,“ Sherwood laughed. “To put it to bed and call it a day, would be a travesty. Chris knew that, the band knows that and I know that, so we’re going to push it forward in the best way we can and remain with the highest integrity possible.”
Having seen Sherwood twice with Yes, I can attest he slipped into the role of bassists and backing vocalist quite well. The last time I saw him with Yes was on Cruise To The Edge, where the bassist seemed very much at ease and in his element. He was at several of the shows by other band all over the ship. I bumped into him at the Atlantis in the Bahamas, the day after the first of the two scheduled Yes performances on the cruise. “This whole experience has been very, very surreal,” he said. “I’ve heard from other people that I was starting to look a little more loose and comfortable up there. The reality was when I did the first two shows, my mind was in so many places and I was still dealing with the grief and sorrow factor. But then at one point I reminded myself that Chris wouldn’t have wanted me to stand up there and be depressed, he would have wanted a performance. So I am trying harder to shake those emotions while I am playing and do my thing, so I am glad to hear it's sort of evolving.”
As for the cruise itself, Sherwood had his favorite moments. “Marillion was fantastic and I am really good friends with Nectar, so I went to check them out and they were fantastic as well. I hopped into various rooms and caught things that were going on at the moment, and I had my family with me, so I was sort of dividing the time up between privacy and roaming around and doing my thing. The Mike Portnoy tribute to Chris was really special, and it was nice to see everybody just expressing their love for Chris, which is always a wonderful thing to see. It was just great — five days at sea with everyone who is all like-minded; it’s prog heaven at sea.”
Meanwhile, Yes is in full swing, with U.S. dates running through the summer of 2016. It was recently announced that drummer Alan White will be sitting out the first few shows due to back surgery. Jay Schellen (another frequent collaborator of Sherwood’s) is occupying the drummer’s chair until White returns. After that, it appears Yes is on a break until February 17, 2017, when Cruise To The Edge sails out of Tampa, Florida, for a four-day, prog-infested cruise to Cozumel, Mexico.
Before we finished, I asked Sherwood about the possibility of going into the studio with Yes. He couldn't really elaborate too much about when that’s exactly going to happen. “It’s a dialogue that has gone on a little bit. I think it’s inevitable for Yes to continue thriving. There are two lanes on the freeway that keep it moving forward. One is the touring lane and the other is the recording lane. One without the other equals a slow down on both streets, you know what I’m saying, so I think it is the inevitable that it will happen. I can’t say now how it will become and who’s doing what. I am happy to be there if required, that’s for sure. I hope it happens.”
For now, Sherwood is happy to be working steadily and playing bass in Yes. “It’s weird and it’s strange, but yes I am happy to be part of it,” he confided. “It’s a band that I love as everyone knows who knows me. It’s my favorite band, I have always been there for them when they call and will continue to be.”